A Tourist in Rome - Baths of Diocletian
|Location:||At the northeast edge of the Piazza della Repubblica|
|Metro:||Termini or Repubblica|
|Time:||about 90 minutes|
|Hours:||Santa Maria degli Angeli open 7 AM - 6:30 PM; San Bernardo alle Terme open 6:30 AM - noon and 4 PM - 7 PM; Museum open Tuesday - Sunday, 9:00 AM - 7:45 PM|
The Baths of Diocletian were the largest and most gorgeous of the public baths in ancient Rome. They were originally commissioned by Emperor Maximian in 298 AD (86 years after the Baths of Caracalla) in honor of his co-emperor Diocletian, who never even visited Rome, and completed in 306 AD after Diocletian had abdicated and forced Maximian to do the same. Like the Baths of Caracalla, the Baths of Diocletian were built of brick that was faced on the inside with marble and on the outside with white stucco imitating blocks of white marble, and were built by 10,000 Christians who Diocletian had forced into the back-breaking task of constructing them. Although they had the same layout and rooms as other baths, such as the Baths of Titus, Baths of Trajan and the Baths of Caracalla, they were the largest, able to handle 3000 bathers at one time, double that of the capacity of the Baths of Caracalla, even though the two baths were about the same physical size. The difference was in the relative size of the rooms which had been fine-tuned to the desires of the visiting public. The baths remained in use until king Vitiges of the Ostrogoths cut off the aqueducts which supplied water to Rome, during the siege of Rome in 537 AD.
Today, it's rather difficult to get a consistent view of the Baths of Diocletian because much of it has fallen down or been torn down through the ages, and what is left has been carved up and reworked into several pieces, unlike the Baths of Caracalla which are still a single attraction. To get the best understanding of these massive Roman baths, you really should go see the Baths of Caracalla first, then visit the Baths of Diocletian once you have the knowledge gained there, so you can better understand these difficult ruins. But fear not, we can make sense of the site together. To get orientated and find your way around the descriptions on this page, you can use the diagram of the baths in the 1st photo below, along with the google map of the baths in the 2nd photo below. Matching these up with each other we can understand how the original baths fit in with today's neighborhood, even given that the diagram is rotated 45 degrees from true north-south alignment. The easiest thing to align is the large exedra (#7) at the bottom of the diagram, with the southwestern edge of the Piazza della Repubblica with its central Fountain of the Naiads. That exedra will be our starting point to tour the baths, starting in the next paragraph. The small brown dome to the upper-right of the Piazza della Repubblica in the map is the tepidarium (#2) in the diagram, which has become the vestibule of today's church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. To the upper right of the tepidarium on the map is the long rectangular hall with several peaked roofs which was once the frigidarium (#3) of the baths and is now the transept (main room) of the church. The white dome above Piazza della Repubblica on the map is the Octagon Hall (#8). Left of that white dome is a larger brown dome made from 10 panels. That is the church of San Bernardo alle Terme, and is the round room marked #9 in the diagram. With these landmarks, you should be able to match the diagram to the map, with the caveat that the large square on the map, northeast of the frigidarium, with the spokes radiating from the center, is the Michelangelo Cloister which was built in 1595 and was not part of the original baths so does not appear in the diagram.
So begin at the Repubblica metro stop, climb out of the metro to ground level, and look at the Fountain of the Naiads (1st photo below). If you walk over to them, be very careful crossing the busy traffic circle. The fountain is at the center of the exedra (#7 in the diagram) of the baths. The modern buildings surrounding the fountain (2nd photo below) and extending to the northwest and southeast along the street were built on the edge of the baths shown at the bottom of the diagram. On the opposite side of the fountain from those buildings are the ancient remains, and we'll start with the entrance to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli shown in the 3rd photo below. On this side of those walls was the caldarium (hot baths) in the Baths of Diocletian (#1 in the diagram). After changing out of their street clothes, since street clothes were not worn into the baths, this would have been the first stop of most bathers, where they would clean themselves in the very hot water. The source of the heat was wood-burning fires under the raised podium of the baths, which heated the water in the pipes heading into the bath. The Romans did not bathe naked, nor did they bathe in mixed company. Women bathed in the morning hours, and men bathed in the evening between work and dinner. If a woman bathed with men, her reputation would be ruined, and Emperor Hadrian even legislated against mixed bathing, and the ill bathing alongside the healthy. Make your way over to the caldarium now and enter the church.
When you first enter the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, you'll find yourself in a round room which was the tepidarium of the baths (#2 in the diagram), and is now the vestibule of the church (1st photo below). In 1561, Pope Pius IV commissioned the 86-year-old Michelangelo to design a church honoring the angels and the Christian martyrs who died in the Baths' construction. Luigi Vanvitelli reconstructed that Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1749. This room held warm baths, which were the next stop of bathers after the caldarium. This room was heated by an underfloor heating system, which gave a pleasant feeling of constant radiant heat. Continue on into the huge room which forms the transept of today's church (2nd photo below). This room was the frigidarium of the baths, which was the next stop after the caldarium. The room is 840 feet by 480 feet, and was the model for the Basilica of Maxentius. You can compare this space to the frigidarium in the Baths of Caracalla. The Romans felt that after a good hot bath or sauna, the cold water which opened their pores had a huge health benefit, and the baths in this room were filled with cold water straight from the aqueduct. The size of the frigidarium had increased in size in relation to other rooms of a typical Roman bath, either because the cold baths increased in popularity during the early 4th century, or possibly because of depletion of the surrounding forests, resulting in a lack of fuel for the hot baths. The frigidarium was extensively decorated with statues and elaborate niches in the walls. The original splendor of the Roman building can be imagined when you visit the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Look up at the ceiling at the three groin vaults that form the ceiling, resting on 8 massive columns. From the aerial view of the map, those vaults look like the peaked roofs we saw in the map. The 3rd photo below shows 2 of the 8 pink Egyptian (Aswan) granite columns that support that ceiling and have not moved since antiquity. While you're in the church, try and get to the sacristy which occupies other parts of the Baths of Diocletian (I didn't see this), and also have a look at my Santa Maria degli Angeli page, which concentrates on the church itself, rather than this page's concentration on the ancient Baths of Diocletian.
Exit out the back of the church through the wall opposite the one you entered the transept through. You'll pass through a small gift shop into a courtyard with nice views of some of the interior walls of the baths (1st through 5th photos below), which are now unfortunately exterior walls due to collapse of ceilings and walls over the millenia. At this point you're standing in what is today called Piazalla San Pio X, which is located in what was once one of the two Palaestra (gymnasiums) of the Baths of Diocletian (#5 in the diagram). These were huge rooms where you might perform light exercise before your bath. Continue walking out to the street (Via Cernaia) and turn left. You're still within the Palaestra. The wall forming the inner edge of the Palaestra is on you left (6th and 7th photos below), and the wall forming the outer edge of the Palaestra is across the street (8th photo below). A mosaic floor, reminiscent of a fish-scale floor from the Baths of Caracalla is shown in the 9th photo below.
Cross the street (Via Cernaia) and walk a very short distance down Via Pastrengo, then a look left toward the building with the dome (the Octagon Hall), and down to see the remains of an oval room northeast of the Palaestra (foreground of 1st photo below). Continue walking down Via Pastrengo to the first street, Via Parigi, and take a left to head toward that building with a dome. You'll see the outer side of the wall forming the outer edge of the Palaestra from here, as shown in the 2nd and 3rd photos below. Just past that first exedra in the wall is the entrance into the tiny church of Sant'Isidoro alla Terme (4th photo below). Just beyond that church, again on the left side, is the Octagon Hall (#8 on the diagram), which was once a planetarium but is now part of the National Museum of Rome - Terme di Diocleziano. You must have a valid ticket for the museum to enter the hall. This has been closed all three times I've visited it, but you might want to check whether it's open now while you're here, so you know whether to return later (or see it now if you have a valid museum ticket). I've read that the well-preserved Octagonal Hall is a great place to see the original scale and structure of the Baths of Diocletian. It contains many artifacts found during the excavation of the baths. Though currently closed except when hosting an exhibition, it is the sheer scale and preservation of the structure that impresses most, so if it's open, be sure to take a peek inside. My best photo of the Octagon Hall is embarrassingly off in the distance of the 1st photo below. Sheesh, now I really have to go back to Rome!
Continue walking down Via Parigi until you reach the main street (Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando), then turn right, and turn left at the first street (Via 20 Septtembre). Just past the corner, tucked back on the left side, is the church of San Bernardo alle Terme, which was one corner tower of the outside wall of the Baths of Diocletian (#9 in the diagram, 1st photo below). While you're at this corner, be sure to see the incredible church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (2nd and 3rd photos below) and the Moses Fountain (4th photo below), both unrelated to the Baths of Diocletian, but conveniently located right at this corner.
Unfortunately, it's now a long walk to the next part of the Baths of Diocletian - the entrance to the National Museum of Rome - Terme di Diocleziano at #13 in the diagram, which is diagonally opposite where we are now. Go back to Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, cross over to the Octagon Hall, and bear left as you go around the Baths of Diocletian. Alternately, if you're going a different direction for now, the closest metro stop to the museum is the Termini metro stop. If you're a fanatic, like me, you might want to pass the entrance to the museum and peek around the corner at #10 on the diagram (1st photo below) before backtracking and entering the museum at #13. The National Museum of Rome - Terme di Diocleziano was created in 1889 adjacent to the southern edge of the Michelangelo Cloister to house works of art from ancient Rome. In the museum, you can see the natatio, Hall X, and several other rooms in the eastern half of the Baths of Diocletian. The natatio (#4 on the diagram) was a roofless swimming pool, with large overhead bronze mirrors to direct sunlight into the pool area. It would typically be one of the last stops for a bather. A small part of the natatio has been newly-restored in the museum, as shown in the 2nd-3rd photos below. A mosaic from the baths is shown in the 4th photo below. After finishing your bath in the natatio you could visit libraries, social rooms, meeting rooms and gardens that were part of the Baths of Diocletian to make it a full day.
Several other rooms of the Baths of Diocletian can be visited while touring the National Museum of Rome - Terme di Diocleziano, as shown in the photos below. Again, as with the church, these photos are meant to showcase only the Baths of Diocletian. Many more of the museum's displays can be found on the museum's page. Just be sure to see Hall X (#11 on the diagram), and the natatio, since those are the best parts of the Baths of Diocletian in the museum. By the way, the artifacts displayed in this museum can be, well, rather dull unless you're really into ancient Latin inscriptions and gravestones. So I suggest that you go through the museum with this understanding, lest you be disappointed and confused about what all the fuss might be about. Also bear in mind that your entrance ticket into this museum allows access for 3 days into the other three branches of the National Museum of Rome, including the superb Palazzo Massimo diagonally across the street.
Finally, for extra credit, after exiting the museum, walk back down Viale Enrico de Nocola toward the Repubblica metro station and the Fountain of the Naiads, but don't turn right to head toward the piazza/fountain; instead go straight to the first intersection. There are three sights at this corner. The best by far is the National Museum of Rome - Palazzo Massimo which is a superb museum of ancient Roman sculptures, located on the left side of the road, just past the intersection. Your ticket into the National Museum of Rome - Terme di Diocleziano is valid for 3 days, providing entry into the superb Palazzo Massimo, the pretty good Palazzo Altemps north of Piazza Navona, and the poor Crypta Balbi a few blocks west of the Campidoglio. The second sight at this corner is on the right side at that same intersection; it is a small triangular public park in which you can find the Dogali Obelisk (1st photo below). The third is on the right side, past the intersection, on Via del Viminale, and it is the Terme di Diocleziano Ristorante (2nd and 3rd photos below), built into the other corner tower (from the church of San Bernardo alle Terme) of the outside wall of the Baths of Diocletian. I ate a very nice meal with superb service and a reasonable price on the roof garden.